International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Mariano Grossi, in his opening statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on 24 November said: “Having returned yesterday from Tehran, I am ready to update you on the safeguards situation regarding Iran. I had extensive negotiations with senior Iranian officials to address Iran’s outstanding safeguards issues. As I will report, these negotiations proved inconclusive.”
He said his latest report on verification and monitoring in Iran covers relevant activities of the Agency in the past few months. Up to 23 February 2021, IAEA verified and monitored the implementation by Iran of its nuclear-related commitments under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran the P5+1 group of countries (the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. However, Iran began to gradually roll back on the restrictions imposed by the JCPOA, including oversight by the IAEA, after former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, and the European parties to the agreement failed to put any measures in place to mitigate those sanctions.
Grossi said that since February 2021, IAEA’s activities “have been seriously undermined as a result of Iran’s decision to stop the implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA, including the Additional Protocol”. At that time, Grossi negotiated a temporary agreement with Iran to facilitate “the maintenance of continuity of knowledge”. This came after Iran’s parliament in December 2020 approved a bill that would suspend some inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories did not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by February.
Under the deal, the IAEA placed around 2000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment, which communicated electronically to inspectors while automated measuring devices provided real-time data from the programme. Inspectors are unable to access this data, which Iran said it would preserve and release once a formal agreement on reviving the JCPOA is reached.
However, Grossi said repeated prolongation of the February technical agreement, now in place for around nine months, “is becoming a significant challenge to the Agency’s ability to restore this continuity of knowledge”. In addition, he said contrary to another agreement reached between the Agency and Iran in September 2021, “the lack of access to the Karaj workshop has meant that the restoration of surveillance and monitoring at all of Iran’s facilities and locations in relation to the JCPOA could not be completed”. This “is seriously affecting the Agency’s ability to restore continuity of knowledge at the workshop, which has been widely recognised as essential in relation to a return to the JCPOA”. The Karaj site came under a terrorist attack in June, which Iran blames on Israel. Iran says the site will remain off limits as long as the attack is being investigated by judicial and security officials.
Referring to his latest report to the Board on “NPT Safeguards Agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran”, which describes recent efforts to clarify questions relating to Iran’s declarations under its Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol, he drew attention to “the presence of multiple uranium particles of anthropogenic origin at three locations in Iran not declared to the Agency”, He said presence of isotopically altered particles at one of these locations, is a clear indication that nuclear material and/or equipment contaminated by nuclear material has been present at these locations”.
He added: “I am also concerned by the incidences of Agency inspectors being subjected to excessively invasive physical searches by security officials at nuclear facilities in Iran” and called on Iran to take immediate steps to remedy the situation.
He then spoke about the recent meetings he had in Tehran on 23 November with the Vice President and Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. “Despite my best efforts, these extensive negotiations and deliberations to address Iran’s outstanding safeguards issues … proved inconclusive.”
However, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian said on 24 November that "an agreement has been reached with the Agency in principle to resolve technical issues during the trip and we are following up on the issuance of a joint statement at the earliest opportunity”. He added that Iran “will enter the Vienna talks with full determination to reach a good agreement, and despite the illegal withdrawal of the United States and the lack of the commitment of the European parties if they enter the negotiations with the necessary determination to fulfil their obligations, an agreement could be reached quickly."
The same day, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said the talks between Grossi and Iranian officials in Tehran took place in a constructive atmosphere and the two sides reached a general agreement on how to pursue issues of mutual interest. The most pressing, he noted, is the issue is gaining access to the centrifuge-parts workshop at the TESA Karaj complex, near Tehran.
Meanwhile, foreign minister Amir Abdollahian in a phone call with his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis said Washington’s contradictory behaviour is one of the main obstacles in negotiations to reinstate the JCPOA. He noted that while USA claims it is interested in returning to the JCPOA, it has imposed sanctions on Iranian individuals and companies in two stages over the past few weeks. Amir Abdollahian noted that talks to lift sanctions against Iran will begin next week in Vienna and stressed that Tehran is ready and serious to reach a good and immediate agreement. Iranian officials continue to insist that the first step to any resolution must be the unconditional lifting of sanctions.
Grossi told reporters in Vienna, after addressing the board of governors: “I'm not giving up on trying to find some understanding, but in terms of what we were discussing yesterday, we could not conclude an agreement.” He added that “in terms of the substance… we were not able to make progress”. However, he noted that getting to know the new Iranian officials was “a positive element” and “this will certainly help”.